Books of the Year 2016, Part Two

Yesterday I revealed my pre-2016 published fiction and 2016 non-fiction books of the year. Today it’s turn the of the 2016 fiction list and what an absolute corker of a year it’s been. (It needed to be to make up for the dire straits that is real life.) I’ve read and reviewed lots of good books so I’ve been very strict for this list and only included books I thought were superb and would happily re-read again and again. Click on the book covers to take you to my full reviews.

4627425830The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

If you’ve read my review or follow me on Twitter, it’ll be no surprise that this is my Book of the Year. Set over the course of a year, newly widowed Cora Seabourne decamps from London to Essex with her companion, Martha, and her withdrawn, unusual son, Francis. There she encounters two things which will change her life: the legend of the Essex Serpent, apparently returned and killing man and beast, and local reverend Will Ransome, who’s more modern in his thinking than Cora expects and is quite a match for her intellectually. With themes of science and religion, love and friendship this book is as smart as it is engaging. I didn’t read this book, I lived inside it. Pure joy.

 

41no-ogymgl-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Lesser Bohemians – Eimear McBride

Eily leaves Ireland for London and drama school, determined to lose her virginity. When she does, it’s with Stephen, a relatively famous actor, who she assumes she’ll never see again. Of course it’s only a matter of weeks before she does and, despite the twenty-year age gap – she’s eighteen and he thirty-eight, a relationship, of sorts, begins. Over the course of a year in the 1980s, Eily and Stephen fall in and out of love and Stephen reveals his dark past. Written in a similar staccato, interior style to her debut, McBride places the reader in Eily’s head and we live out the year with her. Superb.

 
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Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in John’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing. An unusual subject told in an experimental, circular style, this really does linger long after you’ve finished reading it.

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Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways due to their different cultural backgrounds – although all of their issues fall under the banner of patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives, loves and friendships.

 

 

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Human Acts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

The story of the aftermath of the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with ‘The Boy’, Dong-Ho outside the municipal gymnasium, listening to the memorial service for the bodies being brought to the gym for families to identify and moving through a number of narrative voices, including the body of Dong-Ho’s friend, Jeong-dae. Shocking, violent and eyeopening.

 

 

coverMy Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

Carol is struggling following the birth of her second son, Jake. Tony, Jake’s father has no intention of leaving his long-term partner and family and Byron, nine-year-old Leon’s father, did a runner when he was due to go to court. She has no financial support and is suffering from postnatal depression. When Tina, the neighbour, calls social services, Jake and Leon are taken into care, going together to a foster carer’s house. Leon spends his time looking out for Jake, thinking about the things that happened when he lived with his mum and hoping that his mum will get better and come back for them. Instead, Carol disappears and white baby Jake is adopted. Leon, nine-years-old with light brown skin, is left behind with Maureen, the foster carer, with little hope of anyone offering him a permanent home. Heart breaking and precise, de Waal nails a child’s perspective, writing convincingly about a situation not often covered in literature.

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Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

1889. Saint-Rémy-de-Provence. There we find Jeanne Trabuc, wife of Charles – ‘The Major’ – the warden of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, hospital for the mentally ill. A new patient arrives, an artist by the name of Vincent Van Gogh. Jeanne strikes up a friendship with the artist which becomes a catalyst for her long hidden feelings about her life. A wonderful novel about marriage – how it changes over time, how you can never really know someone even after thirty years – and the power of art to change the way you view the world.

 

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Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. Dr Morayo Da Silva is a wonderful character: a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour. A gem.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman

A male academic, living in a matriarchy, writes a book about how women gained power – personally, through an electric current which becomes live in their bodies, and politically. The story follows three women: Roxy, a gangster’s daughter; Margot, a mayor, and Allie, an abused foster daughter, as they overturn their situations and begin to run the world. All of this is documented by a male journalist, Tunde, the first to capture the power on camera. Violence, corruption, sexual and domestic abuse, this is indeed a powerful read.

 

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Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

24-year-old Eileen lives at home with her cruel, ex-cop father. She works at the juvenile detention centre where she fancies one of the prison guards who never acknowledges her existence. The week before Christmas, 1964, Rebecca Saint John arrives at the institution to be the first ever director of education. She takes a shine to Eileen and Eileen’s life takes a very dark turn indeed.

 

510ryhmdeel-_sy344_bo1204203200_If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa 

Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. Dealing with pertinent issues of gender through interwoven stories of two cultures, the tales are completely engrossing and the writing’s both inventive and precise.

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Dodge and Burn – Seraphina Madsen

An exercise in imagination that takes the reader on a road trip across the west of the USA and the possibilities of experimental fiction. Framed by news reports of a missing American heiress, Eugenie Lund, the story of her childhood and subsequent trip is told mostly through her notebooks. Virtually imprisoned as part of a social experiment by Dr Vargas, Lund’s childhood was an unusual one which ended when her sister disappeared. This is the story of her search for Camille. A welcome addition to the cult fiction genre, reclaiming something from generations of male writers. Hurrah!

Interview with Anakana Schofield

In the final of my Goldsmiths Prize posts before the winner is announced this evening, I’m very pleased to welcome Anakana Schofield to the blog to discuss her novel Martin John.

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Where did the initial idea for writing about an inadequate molester come from?

In my first novel, Malarky, there’s a character towards the end called Beirut. He is the man in the opposite bed in the psychiatric ward from the main character, Our Woman. He’s a man who believes he’d been to Beirut, is fixated on it. There’s a footnote that says ‘See Martin John: A footnote novel’ which I inserted as devilment. It was an act of self-provocation; I didn’t know whether I’d ever write that novel.

The original title of the novel was Martin John: A Footnote Novel but the publishers requested I remove the subtitle and I agreed as once the works were complete, they’re very much separate, independent works. Although they are a diptych.

The first line of Martin John is ‘Martin John has not been to Beirut’ because the last time we met Martin John he was babbling on about Beirut. In Malarky, he was a jolly, eccentric, harmless, benign seeming man, rather a nice character and then I took him to a very, very dark place.

The idea for writing about an inadequate molester came from the recent plethora of  clerical abuse reports. There’s been an unveiling on the scale of incursions made into women’s bodies. (I say women because I’m interested in women but there are lots of men were abused.) I’m also interested specifically in the incursions that are made in public space, so was curious to explore a flasher. We tend to think of molesters, sex offenders as a distant aberration rather than at the kitchen table, on the bus. They are us. We don’t that idea, we like the idea that they are somehow separate.

I had to respond to the fact that there had been a particularly important moment in the consciousness of these deviant, criminal acts and the impact they have. There’s no geographic limit on these acts; there were clerical abuse reports in England, Boston, Ireland and dreadful clerical sexual abuse in First Nations residential schools and commuities here in Canada.

The novel’s written in a third person subjective narrative voice. It’s very much from the perspective of Martin John (and occasionally his mother). How did it feel to spend an extended period of time living in that character’s head?

The writing of the book was deeply uncomfortable, deeply discomforting and very challenging. However, I don’t write novels in a conventional way and I don’t conceive of writing them in that way. It’s not a process where I entered his head in any kind of sequential, linear manner. My entry point is form and language; I have to find the language to create that man’s head. In Martin John that’s clear because I’m creating recursive prose. The real challenge was how to deploy language to get into his head.

In this book, I took the idea of form as content into the shape of the syntax. It had to be that way because it was predicated on this idea of cycles: cycle of reoffending, cycle of mental illness, cycle of complicity. Martin John has these refrains roiling around his head and they govern much of his response to his behaviour.

It was unpleasant: I had to spend time in his groin more than his head. That was challenging. You have to be prepared to do the work the novel demands and sometimes that work isn’t pleasant but I find myself able for the job. If I’m not, I ask myself why and then I tell myself, ‘Don’t turn away’.

The character of the mother really interests me; she left me questioning what I would do if Martin John was my son. How do you feel about the mother and the way society sees his behaviour as her fault?

We meet Martin John’s mother through him. Her voice is in his head. That speaks to guilt and shame. His mother’s voice is relayed narratively through his head, yet the reader also knows how she feels. I like to innovate with point of view. However, I try not to have or impose feelings about my characters because, as a novelist, I’m not here to sit in judgement or program how the reader responds to them. Beckett had a great line in one of his letters where he’d been asked to explain some aspect of his work: ‘Hamm as stated, Clov as stated, together as stated’. I think that perfectly sums up your question. I don’t prescribe feelings for the reader; I give you his mother, I give you Martin John, I give you the two of them and then the reader takes over. If I decide how I feel, it won’t make for a complex portrait. They’re difficult questions I’m positing.

There was a period of time during the seventies and eighties when the atmosphere was very different. I don’t know how a woman who was living in a Catholic culture where the church and priests and shame had such power would have known what to do. How would she have gotten help? I don’t find it that difficult to imagine the quandary his mother has and her fear of what’s my son doing? What am I going to do about this behaviour? Her response entails telling him to stop it, repeatedly, and then dispatching him away to London and still telling him to stop it.

I don’t know if society sees his behaviour as her fault. I don’t know whether I sought to set it up that way. This is what’s so interesting about the reader’s relationship with a text; the completion of the parsing of the writer and the reader and what takes place in between. Blanchot had that great line where he said the writer is the first reader of the work and to some extent that’s true; I learn things from the reader’s interface with my work. Also, I can find it very frustrating when the terms of literary engagement can be so lacking.

What’s interesting about Martin John though is that the response has been incredible. I’m deeply grateful for the engagement; it makes me optimistic because fiction has been through a fairly conservative time. There are occasions when people will recoil from my novel, they’ll make decisions about it before they’ve read a line of it. That’s troubled me but when I’ve considered it further, that response to the novel mimics our response to the complex psychosexual problems of molesters, flashers, sex offenders, even mental illness to an extent. We recoil from it and don’t want to deal with it. If I hadn’t had that response, the novel would have failed on some level because the form is the content and the form the reader brings – this emotional response – reflects the content.

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The novel has a non-linear structure. Was it obvious to you that this story needed to be structured in this way or did it develop as you began to write?

I don’t plan; the structure emerges and then IF it fails I have to go back and keep digging. With Martin John, there was a moment quite far into the process where I decided to impose an entirely new structure on it. I deployed refrains and I had to overhaul everything about it. I remember thinking it will either work and you’ll have a book or it will fail and you’ll have to go back to where you were before. It was risky.

I have to be prepared to fail, that’s very important. I go down lots of ravines and sometimes off cliff faces then belay back up. The beginning – where I’m thinking what I’m interested in – is fun, but the actual writing of the work isn’t fun. It’s a lot of anxiety. I’ve just writtenand published an essay about process, imagination and the devaluing of imagination in an anthology called Alchemy. A lot of novel writing is about putting value on the imagination, being willing to do trapeze in an imaginative realm.

I love the rhythm of your sentences, the repetition and the word play. Is this something that came easily or is it the result of the redrafting process?

It’s very much a result of arduous redrafting. It became slowly obvious that I was going to go further than I went with Malarky and it would be right into the syntax. The conceptual ideas I was working with were the idea of the loop, the circle, the cyclical, the way in which blood travels around the body, the DNA, the genetics. The sentences loop, they repeat and they repeat in different directions. I was playing with language as the means to create form.

I’m also just not interested in the traditional narrative arc at all; that seems like a falsehood. Especially when considering the social class of the people I’m writing about. Those lives don’t add up to neat crescendos where things get fixed and sorted. It’s important for me to create works that don’t necessarily end. Novels that acknowledge that these people carry on amidst quiet despair. So as a mother, how do you save your kid? Well, good luck with that one. Is it unreasonable to think a mother might protect her child to the detriment of another child? I wanted to ask that question and it seemed to me it wasn’t an unreasonable thing. What would drive a mother? What might you ignore about your offspring? That’s where it gets interesting for me. I don’t want to create novels that are just descriptive  sentences.

How do you feel about Martin John being shortlisted for The Goldsmiths Prize?

I feel ecstatic! It’s very surprising and a mighty thing for my work. It’s a very special prize because it rewards innovation. I don’t think there could be a finer compliment for a writer who’s deeply interested in breaking and challenging literary form and curious about what the novel might become.

And what a shortlist!

I’m back with my women: Rachel Cusk and I were on the Giller shortlist together. I think she’s a marvellous writer and a marvellous woman. I think Eimear McBride is an absolute genius; our books are definitely in conversation with each other. You’re only as good as the work you sit beside so it’s wonderful. I’m looking forward to discovering Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s work. Deborah Levy is creating a very interesting body of work. I’m familiar with Mike McCormack’s earlier work; he wears very significant hats. It’s great.

The readings are taking place in Peckham; I got very exciting when I discovered that. It was a very difficult book to write so I’m very happy to be going to Peckham.

What’s next? Are you working on anything you can tell us about?

Malarky and Martin John are part of a quartet of novels. I’m working on the last two novels in the sequence. Number three is a novel about the character Bina, who appears in Malarky. The final novel brings us to Vancouver and completes the quartet. I’m thinking of them as 4 musical notes in a bar.

My blog focuses on female writers; who are your favourite female writers?

So many it’s hard to know where to begin and where to end; my bedroom is a dormitory of women authors.

Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Margarite Duras, Elfriede Jellinek, Jenny Diski, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Rosa Luxumberg, Annabel Lyon, Lisa Robertson, Gail Scott, Eimear McBride, Thalia Field (whose new novel is extraordinary), Rachel Cusk, Nuala O’Connor, Sinéad Gleeson’s essays are terrific,  Meghan Bradbury’s debut novel is on my to read list.

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne wrote a lovely novel called The Dancers Dancing written from the point of view of some young girls on their way to the Gaeltacht in Donegal. I felt as though I was hearing them speaking and thinking in the Irish language but I was reading it in English. I thought it was the most marvellous thing to achieve.

I’ve just discovered the South African writer, Yewande Omotoso. She wrote the novel The Woman Next Door. It’s just wonderful. There’s a warm narrative voice in it.

I could simply keep typing names here all night long, but I have to jog out in the darkness and go to dinner with a woman writer instead!

Huge thanks to Anakana Schofield for the interview.

 

Flying Under the Radar…but well worth your time

2016 is shaping up to be such a corking year in books (thank goodness, eh, considering the state of everything else…) that I was going to do a books of the mid-year point list. However, when I drew up my longlist I noticed that it split neatly into two categories: those books you already know about because everyone is talking about them and those that I wish everyone was talking about because they’re brilliant and haven’t had the recognition they deserve. So here’s twelve books I’ve read so far this year that I think are worthy of your time and attention. Clicking on the covers will take you to my full review.

Let Me Tell You About a Man I Knew – Susan Fletcher

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A new patient arrives at Saint-Paul-De-Mausole, an artist called Vincent van Gogh. The story of the novel, however, belongs to Jeanne Trabuc, the warder’s wife. van Gogh serves as a catalyst for a change in her steady, claustrophobic life. A fantastic portrait of a marriage and the power of art to change how you see the world.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun – Sarah Ladipo Manyika

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Doctor Morayo Da Silva is approaching her 75th birthday. Former academic, ex-wife of an ambassador, she’s seen the world and lived it all. Now settled in San Francisco living a steady, reliable life…or so she tells us. The multiple narrators of this fascinating tale might not agree. (This also gives me an opportunity to point you in the direction of this excellent piece recommending more women novelists you might enjoy by Sarah Ladipo Manyika on Vela: Seven Bold and New International Voices.)

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

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You know that reviewers’ cliche about books staying with you long after you’ve turned the final page? Well I read this in December and I still shudder every time I think about it. Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Exiled to London from Ireland, by his mother, following an incident in a dentist’s waiting room, Martin John follows his rituals and circuits to ensure he stays on the right side of the law. But he’s already made a mistake and now Baldy Conscience has stayed too long in Martin’s house they’ll be consequences. John’s mother’s story is also very interesting, equal parts heartbreaking and disturbing.

Under the Udala Trees – Chinelo Okparanta

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A coming-of-age novel in 1970’s Nigeria. Ijeoma discovers her sexuality when she meets Amina. Her mother attempts to ‘correct’ her homosexuality through schooling her in The Bible and manoeuvring her into marriage. Gripping, heartbreaking but ultimately hopeful.

Sitting Ducks – Lisa Blower

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The perfect post-Brexit novel if you’re one of those people wondering who was ‘stupid’ enough to vote Leave in those run-down post-industrial towns destroyed by Thatcher and neglected by subsequent administrations. ‘Totty’ Minton’s fed up of being skint, unemployed and living in a house marked for demolition by his former school mate and private property entrepreneur, Malcolm Gandy. Corruption and despair are rife in the lead-up to the 2010 general election and there seems to be no end in sight.

The Living – Anjali Joseph

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Joseph also looks at working class lives. 35-year-old, single mother, Claire, works in one of the UK’s remaining shoe factories and struggles with her teenage son, Jason, while her feud with her mother rumbles on. Arun, a shoe maker and grandfather in Kolhapur, struggles with his health and looks back on his life and marriage. An excellent character study.

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

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The story of two women, Mahsa Weaver and Katherine Goodnow, who have two things in common: 1) jazz 2) their mixed heritage and the issues which have come with it. Two women who want independence but are prevented from having it in different ways although all under the banner of the patriarchy. Piercingly astute on women’s lives.

If You Look for Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

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Mallika, Siva’s Amma, becomes pregnant with twins: a boy and a girl. The girl, Tara, arrives with the umbilical cord still around her neck and dies moments later. The boy, Siva, survives. But Mallika wanted a girl and her grief for Tara leads her to reject Siva and accuse her husband of killing Tara. Brought up as a boy by his father and grandmother and a girl by his mother, Siva spends his childhood and adolescence questioning whether he is a boy or a girl. His story is interwoven with that of George Gibbs, an Englishman who used to live in their house. You can read my interview with Sarayu Srivatsa here.

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

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Simon Limbeau is fatally wounded in a road traffic accident. Pulled from the wreckage and transported to an Intensive Care Unit, the novel charts the progress to the point when Simon’s heart becomes that of Claire Méjan. As the heart’s journey progresses, we meet all of the people involved in transporting it from one body to another. Gripping and fascinating.

Masked Dolls – Shih Chiung-Yu (translated by Wang Xinlin and Poppy Toland)

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Twenty-three chapters, each one titled ‘Conflict’ and the number of the chapter. Initially these conflicts seem to be individual tales: Judy and her Chinese lover; Jiaying and Lawrence, her Western boyfriend; Jiaying’s father’s stories of World War Two; the person who steals underwear from the flat Jiaying and her friends live in when they’re students; Jiaying’s friend Fat Luo’s increasing hatred of her. But as the book progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that these ideas are thematically linked. Greater than the sum of its parts.

Ghostbird – Carol Lovekin

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In a Welsh village where it rains every day in August, fourteen-year-old Cadi Hopkins begins to ask questions about her dead father and sister and why she’s not allowed to go to the lake. Cadi lives with her mother, Violet, with whom she’s locked in an intensified teenage daughter/mother battle. Cadi’s aunt/Violet’s sister-in-law, Lili, lives next door and acts as a surrogate mother to Cadi. Lili also has a contentious relationship with Violet. Nature, magic realism, secrets and family relationships. Atmospheric.

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

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Eileen tells the story of ‘back then’ when she lived with her alcoholic, ex-cop, father, was a secretary in a boys’ juvenile correction facility and met Rebecca Saint John, the beautiful, intelligent, fashionable director of education who befriends Eileen and leads her down a very dark, twisty path.

My Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction 2016 Wishlist

It’s almost time! The Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist will be announced next Tuesday, 8th March. Once again, I’ll be shadowing the prize and for the second year running, I’ll be doing so with a panel. I’ll introduce you to the members of that panel on Friday.

For now though, here are the books I’d like to see appear on Tuesday’s list. They’re a combination of books I’ve loved and those I’m keen to read based on what I’ve heard about them so far. I’ve had to cull this list significantly to keep it to 20 books so, as usual, anything’s possible with the real one!

To be eligible, books have to be written in English and first published in the UK between 1st April 2015 and 31st March 2016. Publishers can enter three full length novels per imprint plus anything eligible by writers who have previously won the prize.

I’ve reviewed the first eleven titles – click on the covers to go to my reviews – and read the next three as well (reviews coming soon).

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Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Inadequate: The inadequate molester is the sex offender who least resembles social and behavioural norms. He is characterised as a social misfit, an isolate, who appears unusual or eccentric. He may be mentally ill and prefers non-threatening sexual partners.

Martin John’s life, we are told, was shaped by a dentist’s waiting room.

There were rumours.
Other rumours.
Other girls.
Other moments.
Same boy.

Martin John now lives in South London. He has a bike to stop him going on the underground. He buys the Irish Times and a British broadsheet every day, the later rotating: he won’t buy ones with headlines that worry him, ones with the word petrol or pervert.

Every Sunday he phones his mam and every Wednesday, he catches the 2.30 pm train to Hatfield to visit his Aunty Noanie. He has a job as a security guard which he mostly does at night. His life is regimented – by task but also by the refrains and the circuits he completes. In this way, he and his mum – from afar – keep Martin John in check. Or attempt to.

At home, videotapes are stacked floor to ceiling. On one wall, nine years’ worth of Eurovision Song Contest recordings. On the parallel wall, meddler research: ‘endless hours of videotapes of people speculated on the news’. His mam’s warned him to make sure one of them doesn’t take his photograph.

The house Martin John lives in belongs to a man named Ralph who’s in prison. Martin John’s acting as live-in landlord renting the upstairs out, preferably to illegal immigrants who don’t stay for long. He’s already made a mistake though with a woman from one of the Baltic States who he found unconscious in bed, having attempted suicide and now Baldy Conscience – ‘A Chernobyl-fucking-cloud of a mistake’ has moved in. Baldy Conscience has stayed too long; he’s messed with Martin John’s regimented lifestyle and there will be consequences.

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Schofield has written a novel I suspect few writers would dare attempt, even if they thought they had the stomach for it. Through a third person subjective viewpoint, we see Martin John, molester, through his own thoughts and actions. Schofield is clever about this though: her choices about language and structure make this view elliptical and repetitive. With a skilled, precise approach, she uses Martin John’s rituals and circuits to show, through language, the way he avoids thinking about what he does and what he’s done. She also uses it to wrong-foot the reader, playing on alternative meanings. For instance, on an occasion where he considers being taken to hospital to be assessed under the Mental Health Act, we aren’t privy as to why he’s been detained but, of course, we’re aware by this point that there has been an incident and rumours of others.

He can discharge. He did discharge. He has discharged. Many times has he discharged. To stop him, they’d have to prevent him under the Act. Was he a danger? You never quite knew with Martin John. He was persuasive, solid like a crow who could persuade you he was a crow.

The structure of the novel means it’s a long time before we get to know the details of Martin John’s behaviour. The incident in the dentist’s waiting room isn’t revealed until after the midpoint of the book and it acts as a catalyst for further revelations both from Martin John and his mother.

And it’s his mother who I found really interesting. There is a point to which Schofield skilfully manipulates the reader into some level of understanding of Martin John, particularly through the holding back of information that’s difficult to digest, but it’s his mam I found myself empathising with.

There was an advert where the radio-mother [of a drug dealer who robbed a post office] spoke to tempt the audience to keep listening, I botched up motherhood her voice said. Find out after the break, Did she botch up motherhood? annunciated the presenter. Martin John’s mam turned the radio off.

She’s conflicted with thoughts of wanting to keep him out of prison – she knows what the other inmates would do to him – but also wanting to keep him away from her. She’s scared of him. But as the novel progresses, we discover there’s more to Martin John’s mam and we’re left questioning not only whether she did the right thing but also what we would do in her situation.

Two-thirds of the way through Martin John there’s a line which ends with the words, ‘but you see this hasn’t been an easy book for any of us’. Schofield reveals herself in that line – it can’t have been an easy novel to write – but also that the idea of exposure (pun intended) for Martin John, his mother and his young victim (who we meet briefly, now a mother herself) is also a difficult concept. For the reader, this is a difficult read in terms of the themes and the moral dilemmas the novel raises. However, it’s absolutely worth it for Schofield’s dynamic use of language and structure. Martin John is a novel that lingers.

 

Thanks to And Other Stories for the review copy.

 

Ones to Read in 2016

2016 is already being talked about as a ‘vintage year’ in terms of forthcoming books. In the second half of the year there’s a spate of second novels from writers who published fantastic debuts two or three years ago. There’s also lots of promising looking books from more established writers. I’m looking forward to all of those but there’s the first half of the year to talk about first.

Initially, I was going to limit this list to ten books; I could’ve populated that list three times over with the wealth of good stuff coming in the next six months. So, the list’s a little longer and the books I’ve chosen to recommend are those that, for me, had the ‘wow factor’ (often for different reasons). Listed in order of publication, all publication dates are UK and subject to change; full reviews will appear on the week of publication.

Human Parts – Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

Human Acts centres around the student uprising in Gwangju, South Korea in 1980. Beginning with Dong-Ho working in the gymnasium where the bodies are being brought and looking for the friend he abandoned, the story moves through a variety of characters as the repercussions of the army’s suppression is felt throughout the city. Brave, brutal, brilliant.

Wow Factor: the variety of voices/perspectives (credit to Deborah Smith’s translation); the sudden switches to violent imagery

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Portobello Books 7th January 2016

American Housewife – Helen Ellis

A short story collection giving voice to a variety of American housewives. From the emails of two neighbours who move from passive aggressive to downright aggressive moves regarding the décor of their shared hallway to the struggling writer taking part in an antiques reality TV show to the woman allowing junior pageant participants to escape, this is a sharp, darkly funny look at women’s lives.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insight into people’s (often appalling) behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Scribner 14th January 2016

Paulina & Fran – Rachel B. Glaser

Art students, Paulina and Fran, meet at a party. Self-conscious and desperate to be liked, they (Paulina in particular) behave appallingly, feigning an air of indifference. But when they leave art school, they have to negotiate their own ways in the world and decide how much their friendship’s really worth.

Wow Factor: the dark humour; the insights into a type of female friendship and behaviour

#ReadWomen

Published by Granta 14th January 2016

If You Look For Me, I Am Not Here – Sarayu Srivatsa

Mallika gives birth to twins but only one survives: a boy, Siva. But she wanted a girl and refuses to believe her daughter’s dead. She calls Siva, Tara and flies into a rage if anyone attempts to do otherwise. Narrated by Siva, who believes his sister lives within him still, this is a beautifully written novel about trying to find your own identity.

Wow Factor: the language; the storytelling

#ReadDiverse2016 #womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by Bluemoose Books 21st January 2016

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep – Joanna Cannon

If you’re on social media, you’ve no doubt heard lots about this novel already. If hype puts you off, ignore it and get stuck into this regardless. The story of a ‘normal’ street in England in the heatwave of 1976. Margaret Creasy’s disappeared and she knows everyone’s secrets. Ten-year-olds Grace and Tilly set out to find her and uncover a whole lot more in the process.

Wow Factor: the psychological insight

#ReadWomen

Published by Borough Press 28th January 2016

Rush Oh! – Shirley Barrett

Eden, New South Wales, 1908. The story of a whaling season told from the point-of-view of Mary Davidson, the 19-year-old daughter of a whaling family. There’s whales, running a family after the death of their mother and a romance with former Methodist minister, John Beck. Often funny, feminist and fascinating.

Wow Factor: the voice; the descriptions of the whales and whaling

#ReadWomen

Published by Virago 4th February 2016

Under the Visible Life – Kim Echlin

The 1960s. Two girls. Mahsa, born to an Afghan mother and an American father, is orphaned after her parents are killed. When the relative she’s sent to live with discovers her relationship with a boy they send her to study in Montreal. There her love of jazz music grows and brings her a lifetime’s friendship with Katherine. Born to an American mother and a Chinese father who she never meets, Katherine sneaks out and begins playing the jazz clubs as a teenager. They lead her to a lifelong romance with an unreliable man. A gripping story of women who want more than society wants to allow them. Already a firm contender for book of the year.

Wow Factor: the language; the protagonists; the insight into relationships, marriage and family

#ReadWomen

Published by Serpent’s Tale 4th February 2016

Martin John – Anakana Schofield

Martin John is an ‘inadequate molester’. Sent to London by his Irish mother, he works, goes to visit Aunty Noanie, phones his mum regularly and circuits Euston Station looking for women he can rub up against. As his mental health deteriorates so does Martin John’s behaviour, revealed in vignettes and repetitive language. But it’s his mother’s story that will really get to you.

Wow Factor: the language; the mother’s story

#ReadWomen

Published by And Other Stories 4th February 2016

The Ballroom – Anna Hope

1911. An asylum on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. Ella Fay’s incarcerated for breaking a window in the textile factory in which she worked. John Mulligan was brought there emaciated and destitute. When John and Ella meet at the dance inmates are allowed to attend on Friday evenings if they’ve been ‘good’, a romance begins. The third wheel in the story is the doctor, Charles Fuller, who’s been at the asylum for five years. A disappointment to his parents, he decides he’s going to make his name with some research on eugenics. Gripping.

Wow Factor: the language; the treatment of the main theme

#ReadWomen

Published by Doubleday 11th February 2016

Mend the Living – Maylis de Kerangal (translated by Jessica Moore)

Told over a 24-hour period from the moment Simon Limbeau’s alarm goes off and he leaves to go surfing with his friends to the point when his heart is transplanted into someone else’s body. de Kerangal tells a gripping tale of the procedure that occurs when an emergency transplant can take place. As the timeline progresses, she dips into the lives of all those involved in the procedure.

Wow Factor: the language; the dipping into the life of each character involved in the transplant

#womenintranslation #translationthurs #ReadWomen

Published by MacLehose Press 11th February 2016

Eileen – Ottessa Moshfegh

1964. 24-year-old Eileen is thin, jagged, angry and unhappy. She lives with her retired, ex-cop, alcoholic father and works as a secretary at a private juvenile correctional facility for teenage boys. Desperate to leave her grim homelife, Eileen dreams of moving to New York. The novel tells the story of the week before Christmas 1964, the week Rebecca Saint John comes to work at the facility. Dark and disturbing, the less you know about this book before diving in the better.

Wow Factor: the perspective; the plotting

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Jonathan Cape 3rd March 2016

Not Working – Lisa Owens

After the day she felt an impulse to start swallowing office supplies, Claire Flannery quit her job to work out what she really wanted to do. Told in vignettes about her long-term relationship with Luke, trips on the tube, increasingly drunk nights out with friends and fall-outs with family members, Claire could be any one of us.

Wow Factor: the protagonist; the insight into a 21st Century female psyche

#ReadWomen

Published by Picador 21st March 2016

The Cauliflower® – Nicola Barker

A fictionalised biography of guru, Sri Ramakrishna. Told in fragments partly by his nephew, Hriday, but also by an anachronistic film director and another narrator. Using haiku and script as well as prose, Barker tells the story of a man elevated by faith and raises questions about the nature of worship.

Wow Factor: Barker’s unique style

#ReadWomen

Published by William Heinemann 21st April 2016

My Name Is Leon – Kit de Waal

1980. Tina gives birth to baby Jake when Leon’s nine, but she struggles to cope and when the upstairs neighbour rings social services Jake and Leon are taken into care. Initially they both go to live with Maureen, an experienced foster parent, but soon baby Jake – who’s white-skinned – has people who want to adopt him. Older, black-skinned, Leon is left with Maureen and his anger at the unfairness of the world. Searing and heartbreaking.

Wow Factor: the voice; the insight into a life of poverty, mental illness and foster care

#ReadDiverse2016 #ReadWomen

Published by Viking 2nd June 2016
Thanks to all the publishers for review copies.